One of the hardest things, when thinking of David Goldblatt’s work, is how to encompass the range of his production. But it is for this same reason that one feels impelled to pay a tribute to his remarkable legacy of work, and its lasting impact on South African photography.
The breadth of Goldblatt’s work is in part in proportion to the length of his active career, more than 50 years, but also his disinterest in action. That he was concerned with the everyday, the intersections and the structures, following what seemed exigent to him at the time, has resulted in a sprawling and somewhat fragmentary body of work. From series as different as ‘The Transported of KwaNdebele’ and ‘Boksburg,’ however, emerges a sense of what South Africa is like in multiple cross-sections. These cross-sections are so powerful that they seem to define how of think of many locations in South Africa.
Goldblatt’s work though is never iconic, his contemplative approach precluding the feats of summation of his contemporaries. This is not to say his work isn’t striking: a railway shunter gazing over his dam fixes your eye, while a man sleeping on the bus between Marabastad and Waterval takes on the qualities of Jesus. Yet these aren’t the frozen moments that rise up and grab history, that reduce a conflict into a flashing moment of insight. Goldblatt’s approach is textural, slower, and for that richer, taking in aftermaths and causes, relationships and intersections.
Goldblatt’s photographs of people always seem to have a deeply humanist bend, exploratory, curious, dispassionate but never demeaning, or abrupt. This is a moving quality in the medium that can tend towards using the shutter like a gate. However, photographs of people from the past regardless of the photographer, evoke a empathetic reaction, a bodily relationship between mine and theirs, that pushes that particular relationship to the fore: that we are the same and
yet so different. The emphasis seems to be the vast gaps, the differences and the impossibility of accessing another person – the past in these photographs is indeed a foreign country. This is an important experience, but to me, Goldblatt’s work is most meaningful when it drifts to things and buildings, where we begin to see some of the bones that hold up our history.
My first awareness of Goldblatt’s work was his color landscapes, which I saw as young man in the early 2000s. What struck me was that a photographic eye turned to the mundaneness of grass, fences, a pile of rocks, a road could imbue those things with a sense of meaning. This significance seemed just out of reach of my consciousness, a sense that if I could just penetrate the relationship between these things, I could penetrate the structure of South Africa. What I was experiencing was the potential of photographs to acts as ciphers for your own knowledge, a quality often hidden by the photographs indexicality. As I’ve grown a little older, this structure seems clearer, more apparent, but also more urgent.
This isn’t some death-of-the-author readerly moment, though. Goldblatt’s clear and incisive search for the “isness” of something, allowed for a remarkable clarity of interpretation. With these ideas in mind, it is the work that Goldblatt did with buildings and structures that I return to. From the incongruous Streamline Moderne of the Voortrekker Monument in Winberg, to a roofless shack in Lenasia, these seem like scaffoldings for understanding our history, the underlying ideologies that are imbued into things like concrete and corrugated iron.
With Goldblatt’s passing, the stream of his images comes to end. And yet, as his work has become richer over time in my eyes, his incredible archive of images will bear repeated lookings and interpretations, growing in depth if no longer in breadth. This seems to me the best legacy a photographer could leave.